Editor: What are the steps that led you to become the newest New York State Bar president?
Lau-Kee: I had a different path to the presidency than the other presidents in that I first became president of an ethnic bar, the Asian American Bar Association of New York, in the 1990s. That bar planned joint activities with the New York County Lawyers Association, NYCLA, and so I gradually became involved with committee work at NYCLA and ended up on their board of directors. From there, NYCLA appointed me as a delegate to the House of Delegates of the New York State Bar Association, and I became much more active in the New York State Bar Association. The State Bar had established diversity seats on their executive committee; this was a ten-year program, which has since been extended. I was asked to take one of those seats and after two years, I really felt that the seat should be rotated among different members, so I stepped down. The next year I pursued a regular at-large seat of the executive committee and was lucky enough to get on, and then I ran for president and was fortunate to be elected.
Editor: So you’ve had years of experience with the Association.
Lau-Kee: You really have to because it’s a large and complex organization. You have to have at least a basic understanding of how all the parts fit together and of how the organization is evolving.
Editor: The theme of your presidency is “Continuity and Change: A Question of Balance.” Please explain it for our readers and how it will inform the work of the Association in the upcoming year.
Lau-Kee: There’s general recognition now that the legal profession is changing in very fundamental ways, driven a lot by two big factors: technology and the economy. We also face changing demographics. A younger generation of lawyers is coming in with perhaps different expectations and perceptions of, for example, what privacy means.
As for continuity, the fundamentals that govern the attorney-client relationship and the relationship of attorneys with the courts really shouldn’t change because these are the principles that guide us in our profession. On the other hand, some change is essential to accommodate the needs of the membership, so the question of balance comes into play. There’s much more segmentation of members’ needs: there’s a lot more specialization in the profession, there are increased demands on attorneys, and the financial pressures are very significant as well, all of which affect our members. I am a great believer that bar associations make better lawyers, creating opportunities to interact with colleagues and learn from them in ways that aren’t always possible in a normal practice setting and providing a place where knowledge is not only created but transmitted. The pressures on the firms, where they’re not willing to give newer lawyers the time to participate fully in the bar, is a change, and it’s an unfortunate one. It becomes significant in other conversations too, for instance, pro bono – how can an attorney handle pro bono work in that context?
Editor: You’ve been a member of the organization for 25 years, so you’ve seen quite a few changes. How does the Association adapt to changing times?
Lau-Kee: I’ve seen a lot of changes, and there are still changes that the Association has to make. For example, we’re looking at knowledge management and establishing online communities that offer more than just a listserve. Our system combines a lot of resources and is managed to give the members a unique way of interacting. This is a private network where we can maintain confidentiality, and it’s established around practice areas and specific topics or reports. It’s going to be interesting to see whether it will be a useful way to let people participate in the Association and allow newer members to have a voice in various issues.
Editor: Many members of the State Bar have objected to Judge Jonathan Lippman’s new rule requiring all attorneys, when filling out their biennial registration forms, to report their pro bono hours and charitable donations to organizations providing legal services to the poor during the previous two years. You recently met with Hon. A. Gail Prudenti to discuss this issue. Where do things now stand?
Lau-Kee: Since my recent two meetings about this issue, lately on July 16 with A. Gail Prudenti, I will say that whereas there were some really objectionable elements to the requirement as it was originally conceived, much to Judge Lippman’s credit, he is listening and trying to accommodate some of the objections our members have. We’ve made tremendous progress in coming to an agreement. Judge Prudenti has also shown tremendous flexibility in talking with us. We’re in the middle of the discussion now, and I’m optimistic that we will come to a resolution that will perhaps not satisfy everybody but will be a reasonable arrangement.
One of the primary objections to the proposed reporting requirement is that it puts too much responsibility for providing access to justice on lawyers, but the chief judge has gone out of his way to say that this is not the only way. He has been passionate about supplying access to justice for the poor, and the Association agrees that this is a very worthwhile goal and one we’d like to address, but there should not be the expectation that lawyers have the ability to pick up the slack in what is a large societal issue.
Editor: Your predecessor, David M. Schraver, initiated an examination of legal education last year. Why is legal education such a high priority for the Association?
Lau-Kee: The central question that bar associations everywhere have to deal with is how to engage the new generation of lawyers, which is part of the change I was talking about. I’m not sure that we fully understand how this engagement should look. For the younger generation of lawyers, their means of communication as well as how they interact is different from what we’re used to. The model up to now has been that the law schools graduated them and they picked which bar association they wanted to be involved with and they interacted with that association. That’s not true anymore. We lose a lot of the newer generation of lawyers right after they graduate, so we have to engage them much earlier. To that end, we have rolled out a pilot project called Pathway to the Profession, in which we try to engage them while they’re in law school and let them know what the Association offers, and, what’s just as important, to learn what their needs are.
There’s been a lot of discussion as to whether people are practice ready or not. From the Bar Association’s point of view, we are concerned about all lawyers and making sure they have the skills that they need. We’re seeing a lot more attorneys starting their own practices now, and I’m not sure how well law school has prepared them with the practice skills that going solo requires. This is an instance where the State Bar has an important role to play.
Editor: What can the Bar Association do to help young lawyers, who are facing a tight job market and unprecedented student loan debt?
Lau-Kee: The student loan debt problem is one that we’re considering, but it’s a large and difficult problem. The Association gives out grants and stipends and provides internships, which are very meaningful to younger lawyers to help defray the cost of education and to establish networks and gain experience. It will be important for us to expand what we offer, certainly in helping young lawyers gain skills and networking connections, which are the most important things for them in becoming successful in a legal career.
Editor: I see that mentoring young lawyers is a focus of your upcoming term. What are their needs, and what programs do you have in mind to help them establish themselves in the profession?
Lau-Kee: We have various mentoring opportunities. What I’ve become aware of is that mentoring in its traditional sense really is a one-on-one exercise, and if you managed to get a mentor you were very lucky because it was more of a chance encounter than anything else. We’re trying to think about mentoring within an organizational context, which means putting a process in place to match people up – and having a particular goal for the program. We’d like to create that initial interaction with the aim that it will become a true one-on-one mentoring relationship, where someone takes an interest in you and takes the time to develop a deeper relationship.
Editor: Does the Association have a pipeline program to encourage young lawyers? Are there programs specifically for minority students?
Lau-Kee: We have sponsored a program for high school students, targeted toward specific groups, where we assemble a panel of lawyers and bring them into a high school and try to give students a sense of what lawyers do and what law school is. Studies have shown that it’s never too early to reach these young people. The general public doesn’t always have a clear idea of what lawyers do, and certainly students are included in that. To the extent that you may spark interest, that’s a good thing.
New York State also has Youth Courts, which the Center for Court Innovation operates. The way they work is that if a kid gets caught for doing something minor, he or she goes before a Youth Court, which is made up of trained young people acting as judge, jury and advocate, and they go through a process to acknowledge what they did and be judged for it. It’s like a court, but what’s really interesting is that a lot of the kids who go through the Youth Court as an offender end up participating in the Youth Courts later on. It’s a fascinating initiative that trains young people using their direct experience and gets them engaged in the legal process. Some of them are very good! It’s a very effective pipeline project.
Editor: You have been part of the President’s Section Diversity Challenge. Describe the focus of this section.
Lau-Kee: I co-chaired the Diversity Challenge for previous presidents. We tried to structure diversity in a way that encouraged diverse members to participate in the various sections. Each section of the Association has its own executive committee, and we got members of the executive committee to mentor one of these diverse members to get them engaged in the section in some way, depending on what their skills and talents were, and we also asked them to sit in on the executive committee meetings. We thought this was a good way to both encourage diverse attorneys to be active in the Association and get the section itself more involved in diversity efforts. We also have a diversity report card that comes out periodically that allows us to look across the Association and see how we’re doing.
Editor: Your background as an Asian-American will bring a unique perspective to the president’s position.
Lau-Kee: I know it’s significant that I’m the first Asian-American president. On the other hand, I think the significance ought to be a reflection of how open the Association has become. Certainly, the major thing is that, as people see minorities in positions of leadership, it encourages minorities to seek out those positions in the future. For all these associations, someone who’s willing to put the time and the effort into it will certainly have the opportunity to participate in the leadership of the organization.